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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Love, Hate & Revulsion: My Perfume Hall Of Shame

By Donna

“…Can't look it in the eyes
Seconal, Spanish fly, absinthe, kerosene
Cherry-flavored neck and collar
I can smell the sorrow on your breath
The sweat, the victory and sorrow
The smell of fear, I got it

I'll take you over, there
I'll take you over, there
Aluminum, tastes like fear
Adrenaline, it pulls us near…”

(Excerpt from “E-Bow The Letter” by R.E.M)

I discovered that I was a little different at a very young age. My sense of smell was very sharp and I was extremely sensitive to unpleasant odors. Olfactory acuity is definitely a double-edged sword; as much pleasure as I get out of flowers, perfume and other wonderful aromas, so do I experience an equally intense revulsion when faced with something that smells bad. I don’t need to elaborate on what qualifies as bad; we all know that the modern world is filled with obnoxious smells both natural and man-made. I always felt assaulted by this in a way that most people I knew did not, especially since most children have little choice as to what their surroundings are. When I grew out of childhood and I could control my own environment at last, both gardening and fine perfume became my refuges from the world at large.

Even in the world of fragrances, my haven in a harsh modern life, there are a few that stand out as something to be avoided. There are many perfumes I can admire for their qualities but that I would never consider wearing, in addition to the ones I really love. Guerlain Shalimar is in this class – I simply cannot wear it or even “get” it, but I can understand why many people love it. Other fragrances are merely strange and perhaps unwearable for me but as long as I do not get up close and personal with them we can coexist just fine. In this category I would place Montale Chocolate Greedy – the only Montale of those I have experienced so far that is so weird that it’s off-putting and just plain odd – there is something in it other than the chocolate that just does not play well with others, and the cognitive dissonance I get when I smell it is truly jarring. However, I do acknowledge its high quality formulation, and that others feel very differently about it, which saves it from my final category.

That would be the Evil Ones, the few that affect me the same way as a bad odor from a factory or garbage dump – I simply must get as far away from them as I can, as quickly as possible. Mercifully there are relatively few of these in the many scents available today, and most of them are cheap mass-market scents that I can avoid without too much trouble. (It’s easy to walk by the “smell-alike” section in the drugstore, knowing in advance how bad these imitations are. Nor do I pay attention to current celebrity releases from barely legal pop stars, knowing in advance that they are all pretty much the same.) Now I know that many people like these fragrances, and this is just how they affect me personally. (I will, however, go so far as to say that none of the fragrances in my Hall of Shame are universally loved.)

Unfortunately, some of these offenders are very popular, or have been so in the past. My current Nemesis is Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue – perhaps it is not as bad as some others, but it is indeed ubiquitous – I cannot go to any department store without someone urging me to try it on, and the small of it hangs in the air near the perfume counter. This scent epitomizes all that I despise about modern synthetics – it is very sharp to my nose, and almost unbearably ozonic/metallic – I get a headache just thinking about it. It seems to be popular due to its “freshness” which for me translates into something like bug spray combined with the smell of an oxidized tin can.

On the opposite end of the scent spectrum from Light Blue is the equally omnipresent Aquolina Pink Sugar, a smothering mess of sweetness unrelieved by any lightness – an airless confection that smells like the inside of a cotton candy machine a cheap carnival. The name seems to indicate that this is the exact effect they were going for, in fact. I have tried this one several times just to be sure that it’s as bad as I first thought. It is.

Now let’s travel back in time a few years. Do you remember Uninhibited by Cher? If you do, please accept my condolences. This heavy perfume had an overdose of something indolic that made it smell like supercharged Johnson’s Baby Oil™ to me. It was a bestseller for a while as one of the earliest celebrity scents, and also helped to give that category of perfumes a bad name. Ditto for Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds. This clinging, oppressive synthetic floral concoction makes me feel like I have been locked in a funeral parlor with no way out. Why it is still popular is one of life’s enduring mysteries. My younger sister hates it so much she can’t even endure scent strips of it in magazines or mailers – they have to be thrown in the trash and put outside so she can breathe freely again. My own distaste is not far behind hers.

We all recall Giorgio Beverly Hills fondly – NOT! This knockout punch of a “fragrance” is probably responsible for more workplace perfume bans than any other. Its overwhelmingly loud chemical notes were scary enough, and when its high popularity in the Eighties is factored in, this one easily makes the Hall of Shame list. Right next to it stands Dior Poison – I have never quite forgiven Dior for this beast, overshadowing my beloved Diorissimo in sales at the height of its infamy and scenting elevators and offices everywhere with the odor of morning-after excess, head shop incense and stale toasted nuts.

Now let us revisit, if we may, the one I find most offensive of all, Christian Lacroix C’est La Vie. This 1990 abomination was also a product of the unfortunate Eighties vibe of “more is more” and was one of the worst perfumes that ever had a top designer’s name attached to it. (For the record, I also hated Lacroix’s fashions– no one excelled at turned the world’s most luxurious fabrics into the world’s most hideous clothing as well as he did. That’s another rant altogether.) The perfume was ponderously heavy and stiflingly animalic – it had an unctuous, oily smell from an overabundance of cheap musk that made my skin crawl, and it was overlaid with a sickly sweetness. Classed as a “fruity Oriental,” it is thankfully discontinued. One of the reasons this one was so bad for me is the high expectation of quality inherent in a perfume with such a prestigious label, as Christian Lacroix was at the very height of his fame in the fashion world at the time of its release. I am not alone in my dislike of this – I seem to recall that Luca Turin compared it to the odor of a bus station men’s room; though I cannot find the archived article, I do remember feeling vindicated by his opinion. I imagine that eau de urinal cake is not what most people would want to smell like.

In closing, I would like to say that in the huge variety of perfumes out there, I can find something to like about almost all of them. Like Grenouille in the novel and film “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”, it is scent itself that fascinates me, and it does not necessarily have to be “pretty” to do so, though I have no immediate plans to commit perfume-related crimes in pursuit of my avocation. I love many “earthy” natural aromas and I even enjoy some industrial essences that have very little to do with being aesthetically pleasing. What disturbs me is when I am asked to pay good money for something that smells cheap or offensive because some marketing “genius” thinks I should. When the sensationalism fades, there had better be something real behind the hype. The top perfume villains and their creators break faith with those who want quality in their lives. Let us be extra grateful for the good ones, those fragrances that make us feel lucky to have skin to put them on and noses with which to enjoy them.

Image credit: Painting titled “C’est La Vie”, unrelated to the perfume but somehow depicting exactly how I feel about it: from online gallery


Blogger tmp00 said...


I had people giving me such crap for hating Light Blue. Chansler Burr gave it five stars. Whatever he was taking I want some.

The only thing that could possibly worse than Pink Sugar is Blue Sugar: deep fired black licorice.

Uninhibited by Cher? Ack. Wasn't that the infomercial years? I'm sure she want's to forget too...

I hate diss Miss Taylor, since she has done admirable work for AIDS. But White Diamond pongs.

Giorgio was worse.

I'm not going to say a word about Poison.

Neimans reeked of Lacroix in 1990. That was the Year I didn't Shop.

I can only add Agent Provacteur to the list. WAAAAYYY over the top, and usually spritzed on with gaggingly wild abandon.

10:42 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, thanks for the reinforcements! Were we separated at birth or something? ;-)

I have never tried Agent Provocateur, but I understand it is very strong indeed. I consider myself warned!

10:49 PM EDT  
Blogger Gaia said...

Add me to the separated at birth gang. I thought I was the only one who finds Light Blue cheap smelling and totally off. Blue and Pink Sugar are gag-worthy and make me think our youth are all suffering from mysterious smell disorders. I can barely remember Cher, but the 80s did give us some of the worst perfume moments. I agree, of course about Giorgio (and its offspring) and Taylor (I think I hate Passion more than WD).

I will also add Beyond Paradise and (I know I'm probably alone on this one, but it makes me almost sick) Cashmere Mist.

Angel is a category by itself.

And maybe the worst, because it's giving people the worst idea what perfume is and should be: most scents you find at a Victoria's Secret store. In my snobbish opinion, this is what "cheap" smells like.

12:25 AM EDT  
Blogger tmp00 said...


It may be one of those that a spritz or two is utterly alluring, but one that appeals to the "spray chest until feet are wet" school of thought make haz-mat suitable. Because Marina is never wrong I will have to revisit Poison, but I have to write that i could survive Giorgio if it wasn't applied like the final coat at the drive-through car wash, and like I wrote, Angel was swill to me umtil I smelled it on someone upon it worked.

But like you I have a freakishly heightened sense of smell, which makes me under-apply my scents. Do we also share a freakishly sense of hearing? Perhaps there should be a high-paying clinical trial!

And Marina, what were you wearing when we met? The body scent was great but the hair was fab- what was it?

Gaia- what are you doing in Vicky S? My minds eye only sees you in la Perla..

12:37 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gaia, I could not agree more about the Victoria's Secret scents and their ilk - they all reek of "cheap." They all form one big blob of bad to me, I can't separate them out into distinct smells - which is all to the good!

Angel is not my Sworn Enemy yet, but if I ever encounter someone who has over-applied it I could easily add it to the list. It's probably only a matter of time...

Tom, if you ever get word of such a paid trial, please sign us up - I will use the spare cash for practical stuff - like Frederic Malle. And yes, my hearing is very acute. I can hear a markdown taken from fifty yards away. :-D

1:33 AM EDT  
Blogger Beth Schreibman Gehring said...

Can we please add any of that Ralph Lauren hot pink and blue coconut wierdness to the list? And,what about anything with J'L'os or Brittany Spears names attached. Donna Karans icky apple stuff, both red and green. My best friend sadly loves that vile Cher fragrance...I just don't get it. How about Celine Dion? And drum roll please ....Obsession gives me a monstrous case of's my all time, number one, worse than Georgio, I hate it totally perfume. Geez even thinking about obsession is making me itchy. Wow, what a good excuse to be supremely catty and! Thanks Donna!

2:10 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

White Linen. The single most disgusting perfume ever to my nose. If I smell it in a train I have to change cars.

Dior Poison as well. Ick.

And Giorgo smells of dried blood (well, actually it smells like certain thingies connected with the female monthly cycle, but I won't go into that).

Agree with the Lacroix.

Shalimar I actually like, especially on others.

And Tom, if you need to get rid of some Agent Provocateur, just send it over. That one, curiously enough, works very well on me!

4:53 AM EDT  
Blogger Bryan said...

I couldn't agree more. C'est la vie smells like b.o. Straight up b.o. bleckh!
I can't understand the five stars for Light Blue either, Tom. I just don't get it.
I found myself wondering if we're related too.
Impressive post indeed.
Thanks for the fun trip down smelly road.

5:39 AM EDT  
Blogger Marina said...

I am with Beth on Obsession. To say that I loathe it would be a huge understatement.

I was wearing Fleur d'Oranger all over my person, I am almost sure :-)

6:32 AM EDT  
Blogger Anne said...

Vicariously venting. Yes, YEs YES! My addition to the "big blob of bad" (thank you Flora!)? LC Lucky Number 6. Once upon a confused moment I was intrigued by the signage, lost my way in the maze of perfume isles and ended up allowing a spritz. Big, did I say BIG, mistake. Aborted the shopping trip and had to hold my arm out the car window while I sped home to scrub.

6:56 AM EDT  
Blogger lilybp said...

Personally, I think Pink Sugar is the most evil perfume that has ever been created (but then I haven't smelled Blue Sugar:). I could not bring myself to put it on my skin; a so-called friend once chased me around Sephora with a scent strip. Dislike the others you mention , too, so I guess I will join the Sep-at-Birth crew. But Lacroix Pour Homme is quite nice (cedar and more cedar). How to explain that?

7:44 AM EDT  
Blogger Divina said...

I have a soft spot for C'est la Vie...I have not smelled it in many, many years, but I remember loving it as a child. I started collecting miniatures of perfumes very young, and at some point I remember C'est la Vie was the miniature I loved most in my collection! LOL! I had no idea back then that my least favorites due to their lack of interesting shape (e.g. vintage Baghari) would be my prized miniatures now! You make me want to go resniff C'est la Vie now to see if I still like it.. The olfactory memory is too vague. One thing I can say though, is that I have hated everything else by Lacroix ever since.. The new Rouge is attrocious and so is C'est une fette. Thanks for unlocking the memories.

8:23 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Lacroix baby, Lacroix!" (sorry, AbFab moment ...)
Tom ... "spray chest until feet are wet" lololol ... thanks :)

I can't really tell one of these from another, I only know that when a woman with a certain kind of makeup & *done* hair walks by the chances are I'll choke in her wake.

My own personal squick, CK One. Cleaning fluid.

8:51 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Donna, can we add Tresor to the list? I love some of the older Lancome fragrances, but Tresor is just wretched. And it seems there is someone who wears Tresor in just about every office I've ever worked in.

There is one monster on your list that I have to admit that I like, though, and that's Poison. After not smelling it on anyone for years, I recently smelled it on a woman in a restaurant, and it was beautifully heady and lush on her. I think the problem with Poison was that just too many people were wearing that scent back in its heyday, and overapplying it.

9:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Gail S said...

Most recent loathing - the new Valentino Rock-n-Rose. Absolutely horrible.

Overall "please-kill-me-now" atmosphere is the odor emanating from all Abercrombie and Fitch stores. I have to hold my breath and walk really fast!

9:01 AM EDT  
Blogger elle said...

Fun post. I live in fear of *any* perfume that has been overapplied - loved Tom's "spray chest until feet are wet" :-). I actually do like Poison...applied subtly.

9:46 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Juicy Couture is the most offensive thing I have smelled recently.
And cheers to diversity ;-)))

9:59 AM EDT  
Blogger Jen said...

I can't believe no one has mentioned Red Door.

11:06 AM EDT  
Blogger marchlion said...

Hey, I love Light Blue! I spent three years fending the SAs off with pistols, then just gave in and joined up. Angel is my Mall Nemesis. Thank God they've quit trying to sell it to people (it just flings itself into their shopping bags on its own...)

Boucheron Trouble was a real killer for awhile too.

Most of the Liz Taylor oeuvre could be used in place of tear gas. However. I have now stopped my third (fourth?) nice older woman and asked what she's wearing and been told Elizabeth Taylor Passion, which smells like a niche incense on them, and death on me. So go figure.

11:46 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beth, go ahead and let it all out! ;-)

Beth & Marina - Obsession is very bad, I totally agree, but at least it's not quite as omnipresent as it once was. It takes no prisoners.

Dinazad, I know what you mean with White Linen - what I call the dreaded "Lauder Accord."

Thanks, Bryan! It is a road I hope I will not have to travel too frequently...

Anne- Oy, that sounds dreadful!

Lilybp, Pink Sugar is one of my MOST hated! Have not tried the Blue Sugar, not sure if I dare!

Divina, you are obviously very brave. ;-)

Divalano - LOL, I love Ab Fab so much! Patsy is my secret anti-heroine - I could never get away with what she does! And the CKOne- - I second that!

Suzanne,Tresor is VILE! I can't believe they discontinued Magie Noire and put that stuff out instead! It's a crime!

Gail, I did try that new Valentino at Saks - OMG it is awful!

Silvia, how could I have left Juicy Couture off my hate list? I loathe it with every cell in my body. Thanks for reminding me - I think. :-D

Jen, consider Red Door as a Dishonorable Mention.

Elle, you have a good point! I thought Tom's overspray imagery was just perfect, too.

March, I will give you a pass on the Light Blue since you feel the same way as I do about all the Liz Taylor frags.

Thanks EVERYONE for your comments! This was a fun one to do.

1:23 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Musc Kublai Khan and Palais Jamal, yuk!

1:33 PM EDT  
Blogger Solander said...

Ditto on the Light Blue. Well, actually, my sense of smell is not that sensitive and I can bear it but I certainly don't like it! There's also a certain burnt sugar accord, a certain white floral accord and an odd clash between warm/dry and cool/wet notes common in "fresh" scents, often men's, that I can hardly stand. And cucumber and melon and some herbal notes make me queasy.
But if we're talking REALLY gag-worthy scents there's the stench emanating from Lush stores all over the world and penetrating the next ten to twenty blocks. YUCK! It sticks to your clothes horribly too. They should be banned for contaminating the atmosphere.
Other than that I can take most "weird" or "bad" scents. Today I wore Profumum Fumidus, for example, and smiled brightly at the autumnal bonfire throw and the dark, juicy vetiver skin scent.

8:45 PM EDT  
Blogger Gaia said...

Tom, you're quite right: La Perla and Wolford, actually. I do get my sports bras and yoga pants from Vicky, and that's enough to make me pity everyone who works at that store. I bet the stench is stuck to their hair.

11:14 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Solander, I know what you mean about "fresh" scents - most of the time they are anything BUT that to my nose! Fake melon and cucumber notes are also high on the gag-me list.

I guess I should consider myself fortunate that there are no Lush stores where I live. It must be at least as bad as V's Secret!

1:15 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

tresor gives me a headache and ck one does smell like cleaning fluid. there was a time when i was in middle school when every girl drowned herself in some rasberry scent, and I knew my brain cells were crying.
I always associate aqua di gio with sleazy teenagers as well.

1:08 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of you are incredibly stuck up, who gives a damn who the perfume is by? the way the perfume SMELLS is the main issue..the majority of you are the type who would pretend to despise a Britney Spears or Jlo or a Paris Hilton fragrance even if you absolutely adored the smell, you'd still refuse to buy it. I am not a fan of any of those celebrities but greatly enjoy some of their fragrances based on HOW GOOD THEY SMELL. It is extremely stuck up and ridiculas and I know for a fact that if those horrific smelling Chanel fragrances such as Allure or Number 5 were created by, say, Christina Aguilera and named Attract and Sexy Number 1 [or whatever] you'd be all too quick to want to share your thoughts on how hideous they smell and vise versa, if the scent of Britney Spears Curious or Paris Hilton Can Can were put into a chanel or dior bottle and given a different name, you'd spray it on yourself like there was no tomorrow and tell everyone how amazing it smells and "expensive". You're just kidding yourself, noone cares what brand the perfume is, well, apart from the snobs of the world, like yourselves.

2:11 PM EDT  

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